In the final blog of our series with Samaritans, Lorna Fraser, Executive Lead of their Media Advisory Service, looks at reporting on suicide inquests. She also discusses, from Samaritans’ perspective, some things for journalists to consider when writing about this challenging issue.
One of the more challenging areas of suicide reporting for journalists is attending and reporting on inquests. Suicide inquests are widely covered, because they are public hearings and journalists have a right to report on legal proceedings. However, covering an inquest in a news report presents a number of unique challenges.
Considering how to approach reporting on a suicide inquest, and what details will be included and what will be left out, should be firmly rooted in the Editors’ Code, both Clause 4 ‘intrusion into shock and grief’ and Clause 5 ‘Reporting suicide’.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, extensive research carried out across the world over the last sixty-plus years links certain types of media reporting with increases in suicide rates. The risk of media coverage negatively influencing people who may be vulnerable significantly increases if details of suicide methods are included, stories are placed prominently, and the coverage is sensational and/or extensive.
Because an inquest is a formal public judicial inquiry, there can be uncertainty around the level of detail journalists should report. For example, during the inquest of a death by overdose, a coroner may hear details of the specific drug and the quantity taken. Similarly, with hanging, a coroner may detail exactly how a person hanged themselves, including the material and ligature point used. While this information is necessary for a them to reach a verdict in an inquest investigation, there is ample evidence to show that such detailed reporting is more likely to lead to ‘imitational’ suicidal behaviour. This is why Samaritans advise against reporting such details in our Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide and why the Editors’ Code specifically states journalists must not publish excessive detail about a method of suicide.
There is a public interest in the outcome of inquests and due to the level of detail shared during this extensive inquiry, the findings can provide clarity as to what events are likely to have lead a person to end their life. Reporting these in this wider context can be an opportunity to raise awareness of some important issues surrounding suicide. For example, highlighting some of the known risk areas which can lead to a person becoming vulnerable to suicidal behaviour – such as problems relating to mental illness, the increased risk with men and suicide, links between substance misuse and suicide, among others.
Clearly it’s important to show sensitivity towards bereaved relatives, giving particular consideration to Clause 4 (intrusion into grief or shock) when approaching such stories.
Some families may find it cathartic to work with the press, for example to talk about the struggles their relative faced, if this can highlight the risk to others and potentially help to prevent further deaths. However, for some this can feel far too intrusive. Journalists should be aware that people who are bereaved by suicide, are themselves at greater risk of suicide contagion. The effect of having the inquest of their loved one reported in the media can be additionally distressing, particularly if extracts of a suicide note are published.
Where possible it is better to work with the family if you are planning to report such details. While some families may wish to be left in private to deal with their loss, some may wish to talk to the press or issue a statement after an inquest, as a tribute to their loved one. An inquest can also be an opportunity to highlight things like the importance of reaching out for help and talking and to show the devastating impact of suicide on loved ones who are left behind.
Samaritans has published some helpful guidance on Working with bereaved families in the aftermath of a suicide. We’ve also published a guide for coroners on their dealings with media. Our media advisory team regularly works with coroners behind the scenes. When an inquest is set to take place which we feel could impact on others who may be at risk, such as a young community already impacted by a death, we may publish a confidential media briefing for a coroner to share with journalists attending the court hearing. These provide specific, relevant guidance and a timely reminder of the need for care with suicide reporting.
Anyone can call Samaritans’ 24-hour helpline for free on 116123, or email email@example.com or visit their local branch to speak to someone face-to-face (opening times are available on our website samaritans.org/branches)
Our Media Advisory team can be reached on 0208 394 8377/020 3874 9186, out-of-hours on 07850 312224 or email firstname.lastname@example.org